Friday, May 8, 2009

More on that native-hunting aristocrat

NAIROBI - The scion of Kenya's most famous and notorious white settler family, Tom Cholmondeley, returned to Kamiti Maximum Prison in the outskirts of Nairobi after being convicted of the manslaughter of Robert Njoya, a stonemason.

Hours earlier he had been driven in a prison van with other inmates to Nairobi High Court, hoping that he was about to make his final appearance in Court No 1. The courtroom was packed with lawyers, prison officers, reporters, cameramen, and Cholmondeley's friends and family. His parents, Lord and Lady Delamere, sat in the seats they have occupied for many days in the past two-and-half years. Behind them more than 20 of Cholmondeley's friends, with sun-bleached hair and deep Kenyan tans, sat and waited nervously.

Near them sat a diminutive figure who has attended almost every day of the lengthy trial: Serah Njoya, the widow of Robert Njoya, the man killed on the Delamere Estate on 10 May 2006. The judge, Mr. Justice Muga Apondi, dealt with half a dozen other cases before launching into his judgement.

In the course of the past 30 months the prosecution has called 38 witnesses and the defence nine. Mr Justice Apondi started working through a summary of all the evidence the court has heard. Two-and-a-half hours later he was still reading from his files. He moved into the final passage of his judgement, but not before one woman standing at the side of the court had fainted, overcome by the heat. As he started to explain how he had reached his judgement, every ear in the room strained to catch every word. Supporters and friends of Tom Cholmondeley had approached this final day apprehensive, but advised that the case the state had made had not been strong.

This is not a total surprise, we were ready in a way for this. - Friend of Tom Cholmondeley

 They were also encouraged by the verdict returned in the case by two assessors - people who act as a jury to assist the judge, and provide him with a non-binding decision. The assessors had found that Tom Cholmondeley was innocent of the charges against. But Mr Justice Apondi said he was setting aside the assessors' opinions. He ruled that Tom Cholmondeley had not acted with premeditated "malice aforethought" when he fired his rifle three years ago. But Cholmondeley had, in the opinion of the judge, been the man who had killed Robert Njoya and had therefore committed manslaughter.

As he delivered the verdict the accused - now the guilty man - stood erect and impassive. Shock swept across the massed ranks of Cholmondeley's friends and family. Lord Delamere, his father, appeared very shaken. The shock felt by many was tempered by a certain anticipation of the unexpected. One senior Nairobi lawyer, a friend of the convicted man, said: "This is not a total surprise, we were ready in a way for this." Cholmondeley's girlfriend, Sally Dudmesh, wept, and others wiped tears from their eyes. Serah Njoya looked inscrutable and said she took no pleasure from the verdict, but "that man", she said, "killed my husband". She has four children, no job, and no husband.

Tom Cholmondeley's defence counsel, Fred Ojiambo, was unrestrained in his response. "Appalling… unbelievable, I am stunned," he said.

He said they would be appealing the verdict, which he said was unjust and wrong. "How", he asked, "can the judge base his findings on the testimony of one man [Carl Tundo] whose evidence is full of holes?"

The case was a success for the lead prosecution barrister, Keriako Tobiko, Kenya's director of public prosecutions. There were times when his very detailed questioning of prosecution witnesses appeared to be gratuitous. But he led a case which convinced the judge, and as one man who had come into court to watch proceedings said: "This man, Cholmondeley, has killed two people. It is right that he serves time in jail."

He was referring to a previous case in 2005 when Tom Cholmondeley admitted he shot and killed a Kenya Wildlife Service ranger on the 55,000-acre family estate. The case came to court; he was charged with murder, but the Attorney General entered a nolle prosequi, a curious circumstance that left man puzzled.

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